Arrived Santiago 05.01.99 midday after 4 hours from London via New York - later we found we could have done a shorter fflght via Buenos Aries for an extra £30. Santiago was warm and sunny, Chimango Caracara as soon as we got out of the airport. Taxi driver conned us for the trip into the City-$20 US but found cheap hotel £33 for 4 for the night. Walk to the Plaza de Armas in pm - turmoil -its being dug up but EL Cathedral was peaceful and beautiful, and we saw 2 Austral Thrushes.
06.01.99 up early for 08.00 flight to Punta Arenas- just across the Straights of Magellan from Terra Del Fuego-Scenery on the flight was fantastic- snow covered Andes- active Volcanos- Fiord Lands- some of it we covered later by car and ferry. Found good Hostel, 6000 pesos B&B(7O()() pesos £10). We'd booked a car to be ready at 4pm so had time for a walk along the coast- lots of Giant Petrels and Dolphin Gulls, and Black-chinned Siskins feeding along the shore line. We came to two old abandoned jetties and they were covered with nesting Cormorants, rnainly Blue-eyed with a few Rock. Also we were surprised to see two nests of Buff-necked Ibis in with the cormorants.
We took a little trip outside the town when we picked up the car, gardens and roadside verges were ablaze with multi-coloured lupins, they really were a delight to see, as was the Long-tailed Meadow Lark with it's brilliant brick red front. Other species we saw Crested and Flighted Steamer Ducks, Magellanic Oystercatcher,South American Tern, Correndera Pipit to name just a few.
Some restaurants in Chile have the reputation for being absent minded and we found one that night. Derek's starter was tomato soup, it differed from the other three, who'd finished their complete meal before Derek got his soup.
Up early the next morning to drive 250km to Porto Natales- very cold and wet flat open landscape with Upland Geese, Lesser Rheas, and Cinereous Harriers. Booked in' Patagonian Adventures' on the Plaza de Armas-3OOOpesos B&B. 6 bunks in one room. A look around the area later produced Black-necked Swans, Southern WIgeon, Redgartered Coot, and really brilliant views of American Kestrel. I should also have a good slide of Kelp Gull and Dolphin Gull in the same frame.
08.0299. Set off for campsite in Torres del Paine National Park- if you see nothing else in Chile you must go there, the scenery is 'estupendo' Derek kept saying 'it's unbelievable'. Tillo and I had a pact that we weren't coming back from Chile until we'd seen a Condor- he and I had been to Peru and missed them and I had a brief visit to Chile and Argentina and missed them- this day we had 18 over us at one point - this can be classed as being fully CONDORIZED. Other nice birds that day were Coscoroba(Swans), Yellow-winged Blackbirds, Patagonia Sierra Finch, and Ashy-headed Geese.
4pm found us on a boat going across a huge lake to the campsite at Pehoe, it was very cold, very wet, and very windy, several people on the boat were sea(lake) sick. Derek and I decided that discretion was the better part of valour,and we would try to spend the night in the Refugio-a sort of Hostel-it was full to overtlowing,so was the carmpsite. This is a very windy part of the world, so wooden wind breaks have been erected and tents can be put up with a degree of protection- Derek got the last wind break.
I had bought a tent the 'Sunday Times" had given an ace score for bad conditions le wind ,blizzards,etc. It took us a long time that night to cook a meal on a small gas bumer,but I put on darnart long johns and vest and snuggled Into my -5c Sleeping bag on the self-Inflating mat and slept well.
Dawn broke with clear skies, no wind, and not biting cold,we managed to boil some eggs on the one burner stove, with bread and coffee, a meal fit for a king.
The programme for the day was a walk to Glacier Grey- depending on different sources of information, between 5 and 7 hours. For Derek and 1, it was a tough walk, we are sesenta anos plus, we both found it very hard on the knees, during the descent at the return end.
We passed through old woodland - I would have expected to see Magellanic Woodpeckers but we dipped. We did see Hooded Grebe with chicks, Chilean Flickers, and Black-chested Buzzard Eagle, and the view over the Glacier was again 'Estupendo'
I managed to book a meal in the Refugio that night- it was soup, some sort of boiled rice with meat, and an orange as 'postre'. a big improvement on sitting outside the tents wrapped up to the nines, balaclavas and all waiting for the little stove to produce- we all admit Elfion did miracles with it , but he was a lot happier when we were able to have a good fire going.
The next morning , confusion , we had been told we had to book places on the boat at the camp shop before being ready to board the boat at 9am; there was a fair queue at the shop at 08.45hrs- Brits, Klwis,Germans,Brazil, Argentine, and of course Chile. Nothing happened for a while and then there was a shout-tickets will be issued on the boat. The number of people waiting seemed far in excess of the capacity of the boat so everyone sprinted back to the campsite- luckily we were packed up ready to go , and we weren't the last at the jetty.
The boat came across the lake about 09.3()hrs the helmsman may have had a heavy night or may have still been on the pisco- in any event he rammed the jetty hard- what were formerly uprights were now at 70 degrees or if you like 20 degrees away from the vertical.
The response to this predicament was to attach a couple of ropes to the jetty, rev the engine up hard, and try and tow the jetty back to its proper vertical stance. This met with some success and all waiting passengers embarked - no one asked what the maximum number should be!! The weather on the return was much improved and again photographs of immense beauty (in the eyes of the photographer) were obtained.
On the boat at 10.30, made a brew of coffee, which went down well with a few biscuitsand then set off for Torres Refugio;once there Ian went for a walk in the hills beyond, I decided to walk up the adjacent pebble and shingle -banked river looking for Diademed Sandpiper Plover, and the other two said that they would catch up on their diaries. Eventually we all gathered in the very upmarket Refugio for a coffee and sandwich and then continued our return journey to Porto Natales.
On the way north we had seen a dead cow( this is vast ranching country) near an area that had mine signs-ie explosive mines with skull and crossbones-it was near the Argentine border. we spotted the corpse on the way back expecting it to be covered with feeding Condors, but nothing, not a fox, not a Caracara, nothing, is there Anthrax around here?
Great views of Chilean Flamingoes and a Short~ared owl, later, and then we booked back at 'Patagonian Adventure", this time the other two bunks were occupied by two Argentinian ladies, one of them was quite talkative in a mixture orSpanish and English- she said her name was Cecelia and she had never shared a room with men before.
We went for a meal- it was Conger Eel and chips, and then by chance passed a bar where Derek suggested that we might have a pisco- this was served with ice, lemon, slices of sausage, cheese, and olives. By the time we returned to the room the ladies were sleeping soundly- we were up early, so apart from a grumpy 'Buenas Dias" with one half-opened eye, that concluded our contact with Cecelia.
11.01.99 Bit of a slog back to Punta Arenas- we had hoped to be able to fit in a visit to the Magellanic Penguin Colony at Ottaway, but ran out of time and petrol- mostly petrol- the gauge was showing empty when we were 35 km from the Penguins, which meant 35 Km back and then another 20Km to Punta Arenas- we voted to see the Penguins 'manana'. Stul picked up a Great Skua, and a flock of Baird's Sandpipers.
The Penguin Colony at Ottaway is a real triumph for the conservationists involved- in 1986 the land was bought-there were 500 birds in the Colony, and there was some opposition from the local people who had always used the penguins as bait for fish etc. Now, 1999, 8000 birds are present,and each pair seem to be rearing two healthy chicks; what the survival rate is I don't know, but it should be good, as the site is well away from open water where predators such as Sea Lions and Killer whales exist. The morning visit here was fine ,and early afternoon we had the flight from Punta Arenas to Puerto Montt- weather was much warmer there, several hundred miles north. Found a good Hospedaje 6000 pesos B&B.
13.01.99.Look around in the morning, lots of whimbrel and a few Hudsonian Godwits along the shoreline, and Turkey and Black Vultures overhead. Tillo had made contact with an English Travel Agent here, so we dropped in to see him, hoping that he would be able to book ferry crossings etc, he wasn't able to do that but he gave us an invaluable piece of advice. We had planned to hire an ordinary car to go down the Carretera Austral, he said it would be no good -not enough clearance~ the road is gravel and very rutted in places- we should get a four seater pickup- in fact it was only a dollar a day more than a car.
We set off South well into the afternoon, complete with an official fishing permit for Ef ion, aiming for the Alerce National Park. As we approached we found a fantastic carmpsite on the banks of a river only rudimentary loos, but you could wash in the river, and we were hoping for four fat trout for breakfast. The downside was that this was our first taste of the the famous Chilean Horsefly - the Koliwacha., these are really, really horrendous. They are as big as the biggest Bumble Bee and the air around you is black with them the only answer we had was to keep swishing a large leafy branch around. Thankfully as soon as the sun goes down, it's sleep time for the Koliwachas.
Eifion failed to catch enough fish for supper so it was a couple of tins mixed with pasta cooked over the camp fire. Derek is a Vet and the only two other peeple at the campsite (it's incredible there were any, considering the Koliwachas) were two South African Vets working now, in England. We had a couple of wine boxes with us- the vets were only too happy to help us empty them.
This was an area with a chance of seeing Magellanic Woodpecker- I woke soon after first light and heard a loud chattering call- not being familiar with many local bird calls ,l was eager to check it out. l was a little delayed with the tent zips- I'd been extra cautious in case the Koliwachas got up early- As I staggered out of the tent I caught a glimpse of a large Blue Kingfisher flying up river; within seconds there were three flying back past the campsite ,so I yelled at the others to get up and see them, they were Ringed Kingfishers and fairly common but still a thrill, the first time that you see them. Other birds we had near here were Striped woodpecker and Grey-flanked Cinclodes. A hummingbird was so active, no more than a second or two on each flower, that we couldn't pin itdown.
The tents were soaked with dew, so we left them up and had a good walk in the Parque Nacional Alerce Andino- this protects some of the last remaining forests of Fitzroya cupressoides, a conifer which resembles the giant sequoia of California in appearance and longevity. Though not as tall as the sequoia, reaching only 40 metres, a 3000 year tree can have a diameter ot four metres. The quality of the timber is excellent,so in the past they have been over exploited. We returned to the camp-site, packed up and set oft south, catching the ferry from La Arena to Puelche, a 30 minute crossing, there was a Seaside Cinclodes(l think a Chilean Endemic and almost a SBJ(small brown job) on the rocks near the Ferry Terminal). We carried on south well after dark and eventually found a campsite just north of Hornopiren- put up the tents in the dark at 11pm. Luckily there was a building used for cooking so we warmed up some packet soups on the stove, so with bread and a can of beer saved for emergencies we survived the night. I slept like a log until 07.45hrs, then walked down to the shore line- it was a sharp, blustery morning, and spotted a Black-Crowned Night Heron. The cook house came in handy again- we had boiled eggs and bread and coffee for desayuno.
From here we had hoped to catch the ferry straight away toCaleta Gonzalo- a 5 hour trip but it was full until Sat 16th, so camped at Ruenda de Agua for two nights and had a look around the Hornopiren area. Thrilled to see a pair of Torrent Ducks with three young, only expected to get those higher up in the Andes. Another bird we had here was the Chucao Tapaculo- a bit like a large Robin(17.5cms) it skulks about in the lower levels of dense vegetation giving a very loud call which one guide book translates as "crrew diddle diddie coo"- it didn't sound anything like that to my ear but we had great fun trying to entice these birds into the open by making various renditions of the above.Tillo tells me that he eventually obtained a reasonable photograph of this elusive bird
16.01.99. Had a good walk to some waterfalls in the morning and then onto the ferry to Caleta Gonzalo, charge 40,000 pesos for the vehicle and 5000 per person. Magnificent scenery from the ship, few birds, Great Skua was only one of note. Reached a campsite at Caleta Santa Barbara at 10pm -a long day with minimum food , seemed to be only rolls available on the ferry.
Next morning drove the short distance into Chaiten- eventually found the ferry office and booked it for Wed 2Oth, then bashed on to Lago Risopatron- a huge lake set In a vast area of rain forest. There was an up-market lodge on the lake shore, I asked about fishing and camping in the vicinity. The guy was friendly- he said that there was a CONAF campsite a few K down the road, and that the fishing was $350 American per day ie about £200- Eifion reckoned that was a bit too expensive. The campsite was OK with a covered area for eating, tap, and fire place - loos and cold showers not too far away. 7800 pesos including a load of firewood. We went back to the lodge in the evening had a nice comfortable beer before cooking the pork chops brought from Chaiten, Tapaculos serenaded us from the depths of the forest, the understory of which consisted completely of a type of bamboo with a dense stem, not the usual hollow one.
18.01.99. On the last ferry we'd spoken to some young Chileans and told them that we planned to drive down the Carretera Austral, they'd said that we shouldn't miss the Parque Nacional Quelat- another most beautiful place in Chile. This is a huge area-154,000 hectares of steep-sided fiords, wide rushing rivers, evergreen rain forests, glaciers, and high snow covered volcanic peaks. We had a day to see the lot!. Marked out viewpoints allow access to enjoy some of the magnificent scenery, but to reach the first glacier required a bit of effort. It was a path of 2K at an angle of about 45 degrees- that wasn't all there had been a violent storm shortly before our visit and very many trees had been blown down. After an hour and a haif of climbing over fallen trees Derek and I gave up - the other two struggled on and reached the glacier and returned safely.
I should add that the start of this path was a narrow suspension foot bridge slung high over a wide river- caused problems for some young Chilean girls they would not cross it. Fantastic close up views of Austral Parakeet here, a large green parakeet with a reddish tail. Carried on a little south from here; the view from K marker 175 was supposed to be worth the drive and so it was- you will have to see the slides. Stopped for some fishing on the way back but nothing of note, and for a beer at Puerto Puyuguapi, Hotel Elizabeth, itwas rip off the Gringos time - £1 each for 4 small beers. we should have asked the price first. Back to last night's campsite (Angostura) at 8pm so it was pasta and a couple of tins cooked over the fire.
06.45 start the next morning' the aim was to have time at lake YeIcho. The weather was hot and sunny and the Koliwachas were enough to make you suicidal. Eflion had a go at fishing a few K above the lake- I lit a fire with driftwood and put lots of green leaves on ft to make a lot of smoke - I stood in the clouds of smoke and still the bloody Koliwachas found me. Elfion gave it almost 30 minutes fishing and then the Koliwachas beat him and he gave up. We had a walk up the bank of the river, lashing out at the horseflies with branches, we were rewarded with sightings of Chilean Flicker, Blue and White Swallow, and Grey flanked Cinclodes. We came to a gate with a sign 'Peros Peligros' dangerous dogs, this was really miles and miles from anywhere, there are only 80,000 people living in the I000miles of Chile south of Puerto Montt, so I thought the sign might be true- time to volver (retum) We were back in Chaiten late afternoon and booked 2 rooms in 'Sebastian' 4000 pesos each B&B. Good views of Rio Frio with snow capped peaks in the background.
There was a small bar / restaurant just up the street- I walked up and asked them if it was possible( se puede commer a las siete y media ) The response was 'SI' and on offer was shellfish soup, Conger eel with chips, and a salad of tomatoes, lettuce, and cucumber. so I said 'SI' also. We ended up having beers and Eifion likes a good drink of wine now and again- it was well short of £10 a head.
Up at 7am, desayuno of coffee(Nescafe and hot water) bread, butter and jam. Then down to the ferry ramp, we were told to get there by 9am to sail at 10. we were there by 8.30 to make sure of our place, but it was well organised, prepaid were in one queue, and last minuters in another. In the end only two vehicles failed to get on, and eventually we sailed at 10.30. Rufous-collared Sparrows were singing in the trees at the top of the ramp, three Seaside Cinclodes dashed about on the rocks nearby, and a flock of 120 Whimbrel fed on the beach just a short way up the coast. Six Dolphins sped ahead as we set out to sea.
This crossing was five hours across open water in Golfo Corcovado, the weather was good, and so were the birds. I'd told the others that there was a chance of an albatross, and we saw one , a Black~rowed at about the half way point Sooty Shearwaters were regular all the time, and we had good views of Wilson's Storm Petrel and Greater Shearwater. Many, many penguins appeared in the distance, we are still argueing if they were Magellanic or Peruvian(Hurnbolt).
When we docked there was a good road going north from Quellon, we were making for Cucao, the entrance to the Parque National de Chiloe. this last bit was 30+ K over a gravel road , and when we arrived we found that the bndge over the river had been washed away by floods three months before. I scanned about with binoculars and saw a field with a sign 'CAMPING' so we camped there, it wasn't brilliant, there were lots of chicken and pig droppings and the loos and showers left a lot to be desired but it had been another long day. It was very cheap, the camp site for the four of us , plus a big fish, firewood, and a lend of a grid to grill the fish was 55O0- well under £10..
After all that we were re vitalised and thought it a good idea to go look for a quick beer before getting in to the sleeping bags. We found Juan, he must have been about 12 years old, to row us across the river to the Parador de Cucao. As we walked into the bar the conversatlon stopped-I asked for three beers and a glass of red wine( in Spanish ) and the guy said it wasn't possIble le he would~ serve us. He said that it was a Chilean rule that you had to be a resident of the Parador to be served with an alcoholic drink. I asked one of the locals the next day if he ever had a beer in the Parador and he said 'yes ' when he could afford it. This was the only instance where one could say that that there were any repercussions over the Pinochet affair that affected us in any way. Everywhere else when we said that we were British, people would laugh and say' Pinochet'. I often said that we were from Galles, and that Galles would soon be an independent country- there was often a shrug- perhaps the chileans know more than us about Mr Blair!!
Next day broke with a dense cold mist the sun burnt it off by mid morning, allowing the Koliwachas to get really active. We walked through a large area of forest and coastal dunes, adding Great White Egret, Grassland Yellowfinch and Great Grebe to the list. when we returned to the river there was a flock of 100+ Whimbrel roosting along the edge, a Lesser Yellowlegs with them, and a Pied-Billed Grebe off shore.
I'd asked Juan-our ferryman- where we could buy shellfish, he said that his mother had some. We found his house, a cottage on the bank of the river, and" Mum" opened a wet sack containing river mussels- we bought the lot for about £1 and she sold us some nice fresh bread rolls . That was the evening reeal complete with a butter and garlic sauce concocted by our master chef.
Stopped at Castro on our way north the next day- there are many brightly painted houses built on stilts out over the edge of the sea; these are called palafitos. ln the main square, the Plaza de Armas, stands a large wooden church- the inside was quite beautiful with the well preserved gleaming timber and large stained glass windows with brilfiant light streaming in.
Efion and I needed new mugs -we saw some In the window-of a big store. One lady wrote cut a ticket for them, we took that to a cashier and paid ,then we were given another slip which we had to give to another lady who presented us with the wrapped up mugs- it did seem excessively labour intensive - making three jobs out of one. The ferry crossing at the north of Chiloe is only a 30 minute one from Chacao to Pargua, sightings from the boat were lots of seals, 4 Hudsonian Godwits and a King Cormorant. Later we stopped at Puerto Montt to book bus tickets to Santiago for the following Sunday night, then carried on through the holiday town of Porto Varas on lago Llanqhihue and camped at' M i Casa do Campo' a few minutes walk from the edge of the lake.
A nearby restaurant provided us with the first steak of the trip( uptil now the fish had been so good) coupled with a splendid view of the huge Volcano Osorno. Back at the tents there was still enough light to identily a Crested Tit Tyrant.
The Guide Books say that Lago Todos los Santos is the roost beautiful lake in the country, so what better way to spend the morning than to see this lake It was set between steep forested hills and from some points one could see the snow capped peak of Osorno reflected in the sparkling blue water. We slogged up and through the volcanic ash on the lower slopes of the volcano and came to some prime forest, hoping to see a Magellanic woodpecker, spent some time doing the David Attenborough trick of imitating the bird by rapidly knocking a stone against a tree, but none appeared. We walked back along the shore of the lake ,three Grey-Flanked Cinclodes moved along in front of us for much of the way. A quick lunch of bread, cheese, and tomatoes eaten off the bonnet of the truck, a look at some nearby 'Cascades' small waterfalls-hundreds of tourists and a few Blue and White Swallows and then down to the Reloncovi estuary. We stopped at the bridge at Ralun, a Chilean lady and her son( tengo siete anos) ie 7 years old were fishing off the bridge, I asked her if the fishing was good -she said 'yes' her husband had caught four big salmon there the previous evening.
Elfion had a go at fishing there , but caught nothing worth keeping, we had a meal in a small cafe near the bridge, salmon, chips, and salad for about £2 a head. The owner of the cafe offered to take Eltion fishing from a boat the next morning, so we were back there by 9m. Efion again had no big fish, but we added Cattle egret and Shiny Cowbird to the list.
We had arranged with the car hire rep to get the truck back to his office outside Puerto Montt by 4pm and he would take us to the bus station where we were to catch the overnight bus to Santiago. With a cooperative effort at navigation we eventually found the office- the door was locked and a large notice stuck to it
"DEAR MR HANFORD AND MR TILLOTSON, I WAITED HERE FROM 11.30 THROUGH 12.30-YOU NO COME-SO I GO BACK TO MY OFFICE INTHE AIRPOIT- PLEASE COME THERE OR PHONE ON 123456. OSCAR."
I can't see that there could be a misunderstanding between -a las quatro and once y media. We found him at the airport and caught the bus, not before we'd had time to have merluza(hake) and chips at the station restaurant- it was excellent.
We found out later that there are buses and De Luxe Express Buses and we had booked a bus it stopped on the road to pick up anyone if there was a spare seat; after two hours we had done 50 miles but things did improve, the reclining seats were good and we all slept through a good part of the night and arrived in Santlago after 14 hours at a cost of less than £10 each.
North of Puerto Montt the land close to the road has been cleared of all the original forest and it is a vista of burnt tree stumps, another resource that was harvested, but probably only benefited a very few.
We had a wash and brush up and some breakfast in Santiago bus station, struggled for ages with cash machines before we found out that they work in English, and then to the airport for the flight to Arica in the far north of Chile ; the taxi driver there was very intent on pointing out the border with Peru.
Residencia Blanquita provided us with B & B for about £5 and a nearby restaurant supplied steak, potatoes, palm hearts, and avacado salad for the same sum. Arica was very busy, people everywhere, apparently the bars stay open till 5am but we needed an early night.
26.01.99. Picked up a Chevrolet pick-up!! for the rest of the trip something like a £100 surcharge to leave it at Santiago airport but it was well worth it because it gave us complete freedom to go where ever we wanted. By the time we'd bought all stores, found a canopy for the back , discovered that we needed to carry spare petrol it was noon leaving Arica. We headed for Putre, stopped at Alexils's place for a lunch of soda bread sandwiches and Coca tea, it was getting pretty high there and we were entertained with immense thunder claps, lightening and Icy cold gales. Putre is 14000ft high in the Andes- it was torrential rain and very cold on our arrival, I think we all decided that it was best not to camp. The Hostel PaIoma(Dove) at 2500 pesos each- no heating but warm beds- was a good alternative. The restaurant was also unheated, the doors were left open for the road gangs that were coming and going, everyone had all their outdoor clothes on ,and the icy wind blew right through. If you didn't eat your chicken and chips in two or three minutes it was stone cold.
This was the only place where we suffered frorn the effects of the altitude, we'd come from sea level to 14000 ft in fIve hours, there were some severe headaches and complete insomnia.
Weather was good next day, so off to Lake Chungaro at over l500Oft, still a bit breathless, but the scenery and the wildlife were more than worth it. A small section of the list follows- Giant Coot, Andean Goose, Andean Avocet,Ash-breasted and Black-hooded Siera finch, Buff- breasted Ground Creeper, Snowy Plover with chicks( conspecific with Kentish?) vicuna, Vizcacha( a rabbit with a big bushy tail) and on the altiplano hundreds of farmed Llamas and Alpacas; they had coloured cords tied to their ears and backs.
Stopped at Parinacota on the way back to Putre, very old church, 1700 or before. Again a horrendous thunderstorm- I'd told Tillo that he should have said a prayer!
An Ornate Tlnamou showed in the headlights on the way back to Hostel Paloma, which supplied us with a meal of pork, rice and potatoes and an early night.
28.01.99. Met Barbara who runs bird tours from Putre, she's originally from Alaska, we had no more time to spend in Putre but she gave us some good tips for birds for the rest of the journey. We had to take the road back to Arica and then the one to the south- it was a huge Atacama landscape of huge hills and valleys; the road often passed along drops of thousands of feet. There were crosses on the side of the road where cars and lorries had crashed off Into the vold, often still visible as dots far below.
We stopped to see The Giant of the Atacama- a huge figure of a man etched into the surface of a hill- supposed to predate the incas and then it was a bit of a flog south to San Pedro de Atacama, where the only campsite had the only swimmimg pool for a huge area- it was busy but quiet on the Friday night. There was a cafe on site which provided us with Guess what? - Chicken and Chips.
The local sight or site, not to be missed is or are the Geysers at El Tatio, the highest geysers in the world- best seen at dawn, when the water and the steam are lit by the rising sun and are not dispersed by the winds later in the day. The guide book says to get up at 4am- it's a 2 hour drive if you can find the track in the dark. We compromised and set the alarm for 5am, thinking that there may be a bit more light to find the track!! After an hour and a half we were well up on the Altiplano and came to a ford across a substantial stream- there was a large boggy area all around; two German guys had tried to avoid the ford and got themselves bogged down to the axles
Our attempt to rescue them was capped with problems; we got bogged down, but managed to get out with their sand tracks, we didn't have enough power to pull them out. So eventually said that we would go and see the geysers and if they were still there on the way back, we would take them back to San Pedro. As it happens they must have had a tow and we did not see them again. with all this we reached the Geysers when most people about 30 tourists) were leaving. It wes worth all the travelling- all this basic earth energy pulsing out almost beneath your feet and the pure clarity of the light on grassy plains and snow clad peaks beyond ,provided a scene, never to be forgotten.
The temperature in the early morning had been LOW, we'd left the camp site in shorts and shirts, at the ford I pulled on datnart long johns over the shorts and a balaclava and a hat on my head - Eifion said that I looked a good ringer for a local bandit. On the return journey the sun was up; it was much warmer,we could marvel at the scenery and we saw Greater Rheas, actually only one1 plus Mountain Caracara, Puna Tinamou, and a flock of 300+ Black-WInged Ground Doves- back at the tents at 14.OOhrs.
We'd been having trouble with one of the tyres, loosing pressure very slowly, so decided the time had come to sort it out properly. The jack sank into the soft ground and we asked four young Chilean men camping nearby if we could borrow their jack as well- they of course took over, but the ground was still too soft and they said to take the truck to a Vulcanisation( tyre repair place) We set off- about a two mile trip- after a few hundred yards the wheel came off and we crunched down on to the axle. The Chileans had not tightened the wheel nuts; Tillo was not a happy man his vocabulary of swear words lasted for 4 minutes 23 seconds. We found 5 of the 6 missing wheel nuts- reached the tyre place- there was a nail in the tyre- we had it repaired, and back to camp for an early night- it had been a pretty eventful day . A good sleep was not to be- it was Saturday night - the camp site was full of people- a Karaoke machine was still belting out Beatle numbers at 2m.
31.01.99. Our first stop today was to be Lake Chacza- an enormous salt lake with huge numbers of nesting Flamingoes- three species Chilean,Andean, and Puna. We were unlucky, about once every ten years there is a year with very low rainfall and the water level is too low for the birds to nest- this was one of those years we had great views of feeding flamingoes in small groups, but missed the mass spectacle of a vast colony. I talked to a biologist at the entrance, he told me that they had an extensive ringing programme , and birds ringed there had been controlled in BoIivla, Ecuador1 and even in the Galapagos Islands.
From here it was another flog across the Atacama to Antofagasta, on the way passing much evidence of the nitrate industry; this existed mostly from 1910 to 1932. The sub surface of large areas of the desert consisted of nitrate deposits and this was 'mined' and sold as fertiliser to north America and Europe, The industry died when a synthetic method of production was developed.
7pm found us with tents up at a small campsite a bit behind and above the very crowded beach at Antofagasta-the owner gave us the name of his favourite restaurant, and that supplied us with a very good rneal of mixed shellfish- the dish was called 'Mariscal'
7am the next morning there was hot coffee brewed on the little butane stove with not quite stale bread rolls and mermelade (jam) and off for a walk along the shore and a bit of birdwatching.-Grey and Band-tailed Gulls, and Blackish Oystercatchers were the only additions to the list.
The next stop was magic- National Park Pan de Azucur with Isla Pan de Azucar. The camp site was at the top of a glorious sandy beach with huge Pacific breakers crashing onto it continually. This was a long way from fresh water and the daily ration was 20 litres- you drank what you needed and poured the rest over your head as a shower.
The Isla was a nesting ground for seabirds so we arranged a trip there straight away- it was a little late in the season- 21st Dec is mid summer day in these parts, but we still saw loads of Humbolt Penguins, Rock Cormorants, Peruvian Boobys and Pelicans. There was a chance of seeing Sea Otters, we missed those but had great views of Fur Seals and Sea Lions.
Our boat man sold us a big fish and some fire wood- Eifion found some 'marg' and vino Blanco in the stores to create a sauce and we enjoyed our dinner on the edge of 'El Pacifico"
The boatman told me that in 1885 the guano(bird droppings) were harvested off the island, and 100 people were employed in this very remote spot loading it onto small boats and thus onto the ships laying offshore. A misty start the next day but we could see Peruvian Boobys( or is it Boobies) diving for fish just off shore. We had a swim In the ocean, the huge waves swept you right up the beach. Then again the road south. We passed through Chaneral- In 1988 the population took a huge copper mine to court because of the huge pollution problem, the waste products from the mine were being pumped onto the beach alongside the town and thus into the sea. The people of Chaneral won the case - the first big environmental problem to get lots of publicity in Chile. A large area of the beach is still GREEN from the effects of the pollution of more than a decade ago.
We stopped at night at the Croata Hostal in Serena, £12 B&B, HOT Showers and Television, the showers were the best bit A good steak with an avacado salad, and one or two glasses of vino tinto finished the day.
03.02.99. We'd passed a large tree full of nesting cormorants on the way into town last night, so we had a walk back to have a good look. The colony comprised 60 nests of Olivaceous Cormorants in the middle of the city park- it was probably less than 1km from the sea in a straight line.
The choapa River Valley was the next stop good for fishing, and the place where the grapes grow that produce Pisco(Chilean brandy). The river was dry in the lower stretches ; we went a way inland to Coiron where I asked a policeman if there was anywhere we could camp. At first he said 'not possible' but then relented and said that if we could find a place near the river it would be OK.
We found a place alongside a deep pool, flat but very stony, and lots of local people swimming in the pool, they cleared oft about 7.30, we had a quick dip, and then lit a fire to cook the Spag Bol.
Woke the next morning to the sound of American Kestrel calling from the rocky crag above us. The opposite bank of the river had dense vegetation, 1 had a glimpse of movement, grabbed my bins and had brilliant view of a Plumbereous Rail with it's green bill and red legs.
Elfion enjoyed a couple of hours' fishing the rest of us had a walk seeing Giant Hummingbird, Chilean Mocking Bird and Austral Blackbird amongst others.
We'd planned to be south of Santiago by the end of the day, giving us time to see the Yeso valley next morning before starting the journey home in the evening- this meant quite a long haul. The Pan American carries on south right through the middle of Santiago, so that's the way we went , Tillo's driving was brililant!!
By the time we reached Puente Alto we were all really tired, so we stopped at the first Motel we saw - I asked how much and the lady said 19000 per person for twelve hours' I thought that a bit strange told the others and they said that they would prefer something a bit less - we carried on to 'Las Vegas' . They had rooms -only doubles at 7500 for twelve hours- at last I twigged- they are all so called 'Love' hotels in this area. We were too tired to bother any more so took them.
As we arrived I asked if there was a restaurant near, and was told of one just around the corner. We found it, open sided with a tin roof, earth floor and two big clay ovens We had managed pretty well with speaking Spanish everywhere but here there was some difficulty, but eventually settled for four ensemadas( a kind of pasty) and a large tortilla which I expected to be an omellette but here turned out to be a flat loaf of bread- I managed to get some cheese to go with that. I don't think Elfion had such a good opinion of my spanish after all this - a 'love hotel' for a bed and bread and cheese for supper.
05.02.99. Last day. We did reach the dam at the head of the Yeso valley but with not a lot of time to spare-marvelled at the scenery- dipped on Diademed Sandpiper Plover, but added Mourning Sierra Finch to the list. On the way back down the valley we stopped at a small 'farm' and gave the lady of the house the remainder of our stores which included a couple of saucepans and the little stove . We had a big smile and thanks - she looked as if she was having a second Christmas.
There was time for a little shopping on the way to the airport and then goodbye to Chile; a really really beautiful country.